Albert Maysles slice of life documentary Iris begins with the clacking of beads. If you know who Iris Apfel is (and trust me, you do, even if the name doesn’t ring a bell) then you know this is the perfect introduction for a woman who has constructed her career around the importance of accessories. Draped in what looks like six plus amber necklaces and an uncountable amount of bracelets, Iris begins cataloguing her entire outfit for the camera crew. A mix of Versace, Dior, and five-dollar thrift shop finds, her style is eclectic to say the least, but as Maysles guides you through her life and home, it becomes clear that there is a precise method to the madness.
Iris, born in Queens in 1921, remembers her mother telling her to invest in simple basic clothing, because she could always dress them up (or down) with necklaces, bracelets, and scarves. More than that, Iris remembers saving up 75 cents to buy her first piece of costume jewelry, a bracelet from Harlem. When she was a young woman she worked at Loehmann’s, back when Mrs. Loehmann was still alive. According to Iris, Mrs. Loehmann pulled her aside one day and told her “You’re not pretty, and you’ll never be pretty, but you have something more important, style.”
She has a lot of stories like these. Iris is an incredibly witty woman who has led a very interesting life. She has a habit of downplaying her achievements, making the things she’s accomplished seem effortless, but throughout the course of the documentary, it becomes obvious that they were not. In the 1950’s she started the company Old World Weavers, which focused on doing exact recreations of vintage fabrics, and ran it until 1992. Old World Weavers made such a big impression on the interior design world that many of Iris’s pieces can still be found in collections and estates. Not to mention, Iris’s collection of costume couture was featured in the Met’s Costume Institute in 2005. The exhibit became such a hit that it traveled around to different museums all over the country. Iris is far more than the fashion industries adorable grandmother. She’s a shrewd businesswoman with a calculated image.
Watching Iris does feel a lot like visiting your grandparent’s house. You know how when you call your grandmother and the conversation starts out normal, but then at some point she starts trying to remember the name of her childhood friend who lived in a one room house with her 13 siblings? Then suddenly you’re hearing a weird history lesson about WWII that is peppered with a bunch of jokes about being old? Iris is just like that (except without the WWII stuff). It meanders from one conversation to another, from one location to another. There is no climax, or plot, or lesson. It feels like Maysles is just introducing you to a friend of his. You’re hanging out with Iris for the evening.
It is a very intimate documentary. You learn a lot about the different sides of Iris and her relationship with her husband Carl. You get to wander through their massive Park Avenue apartment, which is filled to the brim with… stuff. All sorts of stuff. Toys, clothes, and the strangest furniture. There is a huge ostrich statue that holds booze in its torso. It feels like the kind of house that a young child would dream up. You also get to see Carl turn 90-years-old. Of course, Iris gives his birthday speech for him, all while gently caressing the back of his head. You hear her worry about her and Carl’s health. More importantly, you get to see Iris’s reaction to the world around her. Her face rarely ever leaves the frame, and it’s fun to watch her react to the world around her. From strangers who speak to her as if she’s an idiot to dear long time friends. There are very few people interesting and eloquent enough to fill 80 minutes of movie time. Iris is one of them.